In response to a few recent games that appear to be lacking in the criteria. This is a short list and thoughts on some stand out game mechanics that developers seem to be ignoring and need to build upon.
Twitch Plays Pokemon: An Adventure in Anarchy
The World of Pokémon has changed. I feel it in the water types; I feel it in the ground types; I smell it in the flying types.
The game of Pokémon has come through a lot since its creation in 1996. Since the Japanese release of Pokémon Red and Green there have been eighteen games as part of the main series, as well as countless tie-ins, spin-offs and cameos in other games. This doesn’t even begin to cover the multiple anime and manga series, trading card games, stickers, toys, games, breakfast cereals, candy, marbles, movies-.
Okay. So you probably already knew that Pokémon was pretty big. But that’s not really why we’re here.
Pokémon has changed a lot over the years, and several ways. For one, whilst the size of the titanic franchise continues to grow and evolve, it no longer holds the grasp on pop culture that it did about 15 years ago. “Pokemania” is a long-dead issue. And whilst the games themselves are often criticized for being “samey”, the series is one I can applaud for its approach to sequels. Each new Pokémon game released is similar to the last, but not identical; there are always just enough changes to keep the series fresh, and to shift the paradigm of gameplay. This is easy to see when considering how the graphics of the game change and develop, reflecting the improvement of technological resources whilst retaining a style inherent to the series. Likewise, I would suggest that there has been a clear effort on the part of Gamefreak to balance the battle system of the games, whilst changing it as little as possible. In Gen 2, Dark and Steel types evened the playing field, whilst breeding allowed for more sophisticated methods of raising and obtaining pokémon. Gen 3 brought abilities, Gen 4 fixed special stats, Gen 5 introduced dreamworld abilities and Gen 6 brought better ways to EV train and the Fairy type, as well as an improved online battle system. The creation of hundreds of new species of pokémon has also helped to bring balance to the game; with almost every possible type combination available, the possibilities when assembling a team are near-endless. All of this stacks up to create a dynamic and hotly competitive meta-game, with every detail and hair of it analysed, catalogued and debated on sites such as Serebii, Bulbapedia and, of course, the almighty Smogon. Everything introduced into pokémon since generation 1 sought to improve upon its formula, and did so successfully. But each game does this with utmost respect given to its progenitor- and with good reason.
It’s undeniable that the first iteration of Pokémon was unbalanced, especially after so much has been done since to address the issue. It needs to be made clear, however, that this skew was part of the game’s charm. Dragon types were rare, with only one evolution line, and powerful to match. This is because, in the world Pokémon Red and Blue created, dragons were a rare and mythical creature. It made sense that they were so powerful, because how else would they achieve such a legendary status in a world populated by powerful monsters?. Ghost and Psychic types were advantageous likewise, but this too is unsurprising given the prominence each type is given in the game. Of course, the game was not just ‘broken’ in terms of its unbalanced battle system. Glitches roamed wild throughout the world of Kanto, literally, in the case of the infamous Missingno, bringing with them new possibilities. Exploitation of these allowed dedicated players the chance to catch Mew, a pokémon meant to be removed from the game. Mentioned only in brief snatches of text in the Cinnabar Mansion, and available only through a convoluted process you might have heard from a friend of a friend, it truly was a legendary pokémon. This sparked rumours of other secrets hidden throughout the game; many quests for these obscure features proved futile, as anyone who spent hours trying to get into the Elite 4 secret room or searching for Pikablu can attest to. But this wasn’t a bad thing. The fact that there were secrets out there, that maybe no-one else had ever found, added to the mythos of the game. The battle system, such as it was, didn’t feel like one- it wasn’t a balanced shrine to perfect strategy, so much as a way to gauge how well you’d trained these awesome-looking creatures. Certain types of pokémon seemed special, and it always felt like there would be a wealth of secrets or unknown treasure hidden in plain sight. These days, Dragon type is just another type, something even a Jigglypuff can deal with, and any secrets are easily validated or disproved with a Google search.
It’s unrealistic to expect a sense of discovery to last too long- and it makes even less sense to expect Gamefreak to try and re-create the same feeling every time a new game is released. Instead they’ve focused on creating a complex but enjoyable battle system, which has now become the focal point of the games. That’s not to say that they don’t try to recapture the sense of adventure felt in their original outing- indeed, I feel Black and White very nearly accomplished it by cutting the player off from using old pokémon for the majority of the game- but the series has moved on from those days. Every now and again, though, the sense of adventure re-emerges amongst fans. It’s the reason for all the hype surrounding the launch of a new game, and the buzz you can find online when people are discovering all of the new features. It fuels the numerous creepy pastas out there, from haunted game cartridges to the Lavender Town tale. It’s the reason people love Nuzlocke so much, which again brings new danger and dynamics to the games they’re so accustomed to. And, I would argue, it’s the reason why Twitch plays Pokémon.
If, for whatever reason, you’ve missed the boat on this, allow me to make it clear that my description cannot begin to cover the insanity of the phenomenon that is ‘Twitch Plays Pokémon‘; but I’ll try. For the last week or so, thousands of viewers on Twitch have controlled a single game of pokémon. Typing commands into the Twitch chat window cause corresponding actions in a bot-controlled version of Pokémon Red. As you can imagine, it’s pure, unadulterated chaos. And it’s wonderful. Through these chaotic means, the players of Twitch have achieved quite a lot. They have attained 3 gym badges, caught several pokémon, and defeated their rival on numerous occasions. They have traversed the floor-tile maze of the Team Rocket base, only to stumble straight back to the beginning again. They have caught and trained pokémon, including their believed starter Abby, only to release them on a whim. As the madness has evolved, so has the way in which it is implemented. Now players can vote for either Anarchy, the original system the game ran on, or Democracy, which tallies votes for certain actions and uses the most popular. The way in which the game is played has already been covered masterfully by our own Patrick Lowe, but I’m here for a different reason. I’m here to talk about the fans.
Head on over to Reddit, and you’ll find an entire subreddit devoted to the phenomenon, packed full of fan art made of the run as well emergent philosophical takes on the action of the game. The choice between the Helix fossil and the Dome fossil isn’t just about whether you prefer Omanyte or Kabuto- it’s a choice of religion. Do you advocate Anarchy or Democracy? Will you follow the Holy Helix, and its faithful servants Bird Jesus (pigeot) and The Keeper (Drowzee), or will you be led astray by the False Prophet (Flareon), servant of the vile Dome-ocracy? Where will the path take Red next? Who will be the next great Prophet, and will we ever catch a pokémon that can learn surf? Lapras may well be the best choice for that, as it’s fairly easy to acquire- but doing so means storing a beloved party member in Bill’s PC, a place from whence few brave ‘mons have ever returned. It’s not unusual these days to see a fanbase take something and run with it. It’s been the making of any number of things, good and bad. But to see it done with such beautiful fervor, and taken to such extremes, is simply a sight to behold.
This is a run of Pokémon Red that brings me straight back to my childhood. Although everything about the game is old, it’s also entirely new. It’s the same game we all know, with the same pokémon, towns, music and graphics. But the obstacles to overcome are entirely new. Only in Twitch Plays Pokemon can a ledge become an hour-long ordeal and the accidental use of ‘dig’ drive you to despair. The difficulty faced in even the most minor of tasks has made each and every victory a milestone achievement. And every step that goes by, it becomes less and less certain that the final goal- to become the champion- will ever be possible. That’s something I’ve genuinely never felt in a pokémon game. But it’s okay. Because it’s not about the completion, or the training or the victory. It’s about the journey you take, along with thousands of equally insane individuals. Even if we go nowhere, we’ll have a hell of a time getting there. The dragons truly are dragons again, and we’ve stumbled across a secret that no-one has ever discovered before- and we’re loving every minute of it.
As pokémon evolved, some things that should never have been forgotten became lost. But, in Twitch Play’s Pokémon, it has once again been found, and it truly is precious.